Thursday, February 17, 2011

Open medium comes with distractions, don’t fall for it

This piece was written for Centre Right India. Also posting it below -

Veteran counter terror analyst and former head of intelligence agencies B Raman was recently at the receiving end of some unsavory treatment on the internet, especially Twitter. So much so that it led to an entry at his blog and in Outlook lamenting the attack. He labelled his tormentors “The Hindutva Storm-Troopers” because almost all of the abusers were upset with terror being linked to Hindus. Now this is no way to defend anything. Heaping personal abuse on someone can never be a credible defense of anything. Rather than doing any good, it actually harms the defender’s cause.

Questioning popular views, irreverence and occasional abuse has earned a certain band of people on Twitter the moniker “Internet Hindus”. We can thank journalist Sagarika Ghose for that. Leaving the irony of those denouncing label pasting, well, pasting labels on others aside, let us see if all this warrants the importance being given to it.

All of this “Hindutva Storm-Trooping” is taking place on the internet. This wonderful new medium has been a revolution in providing unprecedented access to information, news, entertainment, discussion that was hitherto unavailable or was inconvenient using conventional mediums. It has contributed to the richness of debates infusing some much needed diversity allowing all points of views being expressed. We have seen some excellent blogs and discussion forums emerge. Independent bloggers on the strength of their credible analysis are successfully transitioning into contributing columnists to established news media. Serious think tanks are emerging thanks to the networking capabilities of the internet. These are only some examples of the enormous promise and potential the internet holds.

On the other hand, in the absence of filters, this free-from-control medium finds all kinds of folks frequenting this space. Trolls and abusers are some who are the most disliked. They are given to attempting to derail discussions without adding any value. But they are just that, distractions, mere unwanted noise. If they had anything concrete to successfully derail debates, we would not have seen the growth of all these successful blogs and think tanks. To pay serious attention to them is to allow minor inconveniences distract us.

Some may argue that abuse is not unprovoked. But this is an endless discussion and nothing is likely to come of it. Besides provocation can hardly be an excuse to unparliamentary behaviour, especially when directed at respected personalities or when used in sensitive topics. If this “hate-abuse phenomenon” is such a monster as some think it is then veterans should surely know attention fuels, not defuses, such behaviour. Employing starve-the-beast strategy can be useful here. Works surprisingly well. Eminent journalists, columnists popular on Twitter have been at the receiving end of similar misdirected energy. But they have learned to adapt and are aware of the pitfalls of the new medium. Once this adjustment is made, debate carries on.

The internet seems to have unleashed all the disgruntled energy people had for perceived unidimensional discussions on national television. People seem not to know what do do with the availability of equal opportunity tools like Twitter. This is manifesting in all kinds of behaviour. Once this energy is released, debate here will temper to more serious, reasoned tones.

The internet, while it has been around for a while, is still evolving. For all the impact it has had on our lives, it’s potential is far from being realized and we have still not wrapped our arms around it. While some are coming to terms with it, those getting diverted by this fringe behaviour are either new entrants very much behind the curve or still have not adapted to it. The following B Raman attracts for his blogposts and the wide readership for his columns is a testimony to the respect he commands. Lamenting the minority who resort to personal attacks risks ignoring this fact. Look at the immediate reaction to his laments. Personal abuse directed at him was rightly denounced, support came pouring in which is very encouraging. Like most things in life, there are always different sides to everything. While a majority of people respect B Raman, there are a few who do not. Unless there is serious criticism, why fall for distractions?

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